How to Write a Better To Do List and Get More Done

I use to do lists every day. On those days I don’t write a to do list, I tend to get a lot less done. But the humble to do list can sometimes be less than motivating. We make to do lists that are too long, too short, too vague, too confusing, overcommitted, unwieldy, stale and forgotten, or even too meticulously planned.

how to write a better to do list

It doesn’t seem like a complicated practice, writing down a few things you want to get done each day. But if you’ve found your simple to do list to be anything but, you might need one (or more) of these techniques to make your to do list more effective.

1. Reframe your list in the context of your purpose

For many of us, to do lists feel like shackles. They make us miserable, and sap our energy, rather than motivating us to get more done.

Art Markman, author and professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, says this is because our to do lists are too often just collections of boring, stressful, or banal tasks that we need to do. While those might be necessary to our jobs, Markman says “… if you confront yourself each day with reminders of only the least enjoyable parts of your job, it’ll probably wind up sapping your motivation to come to work.”

If that sounds like your to do list, Markman suggests a very simple solution. Reframing your list to be focused around your bigger purpose at work, says Markman, will make those boring tasks take on an aura of importance. Connect your daily task list to your bigger purpose, and you’ll see the why behind those things you have to do.

Research shows we enjoy our work more when we see it as a calling, so bringing your bigger purpose into your everyday tasks could increase your enjoyment at work overall.

2. Make your to do list public

This might sound horrifying, but “public” doesn’t have to mean everyone can see your task list—though that can be surprisingly helpful, as I’ll explain in a moment.

A public to do list can simply mean sharing what you want to get done with a friend or colleague. Research shows telling a friend about your to do list can help you get more done. Studies in 2015 and 2016 showed having someone else keep you accountable makes you more likely to achieve your goals.

I should note, though, that this doesn’t apply to identity-based goals. If you want to be a better friend, for instance, or a better boss, telling someone else about this kind of goal will feel like progress on it, and can stop you taking real steps towards achieving it. The authors of a 2009 study explain it this way:

  • When other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.

So keep accountability for concrete tasks or projects, rather than identity-based changes.

But if having a friend or colleague isn’t quite enough accountability for you, you could go all the way and make your to do list public to anyone who wants to check it out. Software developer Joe Reddington did this back in August and says, “I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

Why did a public to do list have such a big effect on Reddington’s productivity? It was all about how he wrote his to do list. As soon as he made the list public and realized other people could read it, Reddington saw things he’d overlooked when the list was private. He’d included duplicate tasks, written tasks as questions, rather than statements he could act on, and had many poorly-written tasks on his list.

Reddington went over his list and rewrote many of his tasks, as well as deleting duplicates. The process of rewriting tasks so they made sense to other people, says Reddington, made him think about them carefully, and define them better.

  • … when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

Even if you don’t want to make your entire task list public, you can replicate the benefits of Reddington’s experiment. When you write your to do list, imagine the you of the future who will complete those tasks as a different person. Writing your tasks as if they’re going to be read by someone else will force you to articulate and define them more clearly, making it easier and faster to act on them later.

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3. Write a list of what you think you will do

Now here’s a novel idea that I love. Mark Forster is a doyen of productivity experiments. He’s also written several books about productivity, but continues updating his blog with new approaches to planning your day and writing to do lists.

One of Forster’s failed experiments was to write a to do list for the day, then put it away in a drawer. Forster hoped writing the list would be enough to make him remember what was on it and get it all done. But sadly, when the end of the day rolled around and Forster pulled the list out of its drawer he realized he hadn’t done even one task on the list!

Thinking about why the experiment failed, Forster came up with another approach. For the next day, he wrote a list of what he thought he would actually do. This was more of a prediction list, than the kind of hopeful wishlist most of us make for our daily task lists.

Again, Forster put the list away in the drawer. But this time, he managed to complete every task on the list. And all without looking at it once! As he continued using this method over the following days, Forster started doing a midday check-in to remind himself what was left on the list and check off completed tasks, but he didn’t need to keep it nearby and refer to it constantly.

The trick to this approach, says Forster, is making the list in answer to the question: What do I actually think that I will do today?

  • What I realised very quickly was that asking the question changes the reality. In other words, if I write down the answers to the question, then I will have a very different day from what would happen if I just allowed the day to happen.

With this approach, Forster found he not only got more done during the day, but he even managed to get through some tasks he’d been putting off for a long time.

If you find your reality rarely matches the plan you make ahead of time, try making your to do list in answer to Forster’s question, and see what difference it makes to your productivity.

4. Draw your to do list

You might smirk at this idea, but if you want to remember what’s on your to do list, there really isn’t a better way to make it than by drawing. A 2016 study tested participants by asking them to either draw or write a set of words. When they were tested later to see how many words they remembered, those who drew the words remembered twice as many.

A further study added several other conditions, where participants imagined the item, looked at a picture of it, or listed its attributes, but still drawing participants had the best memory for the list of words.

The researchers believe the difference may be due to how many different skills we use when drawing. We have to imagine the item in our mind, think about its physical properties to figure out how to depict it in a drawing, and finally use our motor skills to draw it on the page. The study’s authors say this combination may make us create a stronger memory of the word:

  • Specifically, we believe that because drawing results in more interconnected memory cues to draw upon at recall, the memory trace for drawn words is much more likely to be effectively retrieved than when it was simply written, listed, visualized, or viewed at encoding.

So if you find you’re not getting enough done because you forget what you’ve planned for the day, or you’re wasting time looking at your to do list over and over during the day, try drawing it instead. You might be surprised at how much better you recall everything you wanted to get done.

But this approach isn’t only useful for a standard to do list. If you use Brian Tracy’s method of rewriting your goals every day to keep yourself focused, drawing your goals could work even better. Since drawing engages more of our skills and improves our ability to remember what we put on paper, it could be a more effective approach for committing your goals to memory so you stay focused on them throughout the day.

For something so simple, there are myriad ways to complicate a to do list. But if just jotting down your tasks each morning isn’t working for you, try one of these techniques to refocus your task list and improve your productivity.

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